It’s fine to lose. It’s inexcusable to no-show.
Even the worst-case, monster-around-the-corner fears that some Royals fans had about a weekend full of sellout crowds and national broadcasts with first place on the line in late September probably did not include losing this game the way bugs lose to windshields.
The most anticipated Royals game in a generation needed 31 minutes to turn into boos. From there, it just got worse. Much, much worse.
Of all the ways that Royals fans have come by their skepticism honestly, watching their team go limp and overmatched in the first game of the most important series in 29 years instantly moves toward the top of the list.
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The Royals are — still, by the way — in a real pennant race and they just played like the teams that made Buddy Bell swear to never say things can’t get worse.
All year, the Royals have had a pattern of playing their best when being written off, and then playing their worst as fans bought in. When hope fades, the Royals are resilient. When the moments have grown, the Royals have shrunk. They outdid themselves here.
The light of day will show that this 10-1 loss to the Tigers on Friday in the first game of a season-defining series does not have to be a season-changer. The Royals always needed to win two of three this weekend to go into the last week in first place of the American League Central Division. They can still do that, starting at noon Saturday with James Shields in a textbook definition of a big game.
But, for now, this basically feels like showing up for a party and the cops are there.
Royals fans have learned to be a cynical bunch over the years, but this was like guarding against a left-hook and instead being knocked cold by a sucker-punch.
One more big moment where the Royals fell down, and in so many ways that in the moment feel like symbolic doses of poison.
Alex Gordon misjudged a line drive in the first inning. After the game, Ned Yost said the ball must’ve knuckled on Gordon. If caught, it probably would’ve turned into an inning-ending double play. Instead, it kickstarted three Detroit runs before the Royals came up to bat.
Combined with Billy Butler’s weak fly out on a 3-0 pitch with runners on second and third in the second inning, that means the two original building blocks of The Process starred in this important game’s two most deflating moments. Defense failed the Royals again in the fifth, when Omar Infante threw a double-play ball past Eric Hosmer.
Jason Vargas did not make it out of the fourth. He and the relievers behind him gave up 10 runs in the first five innings, an intolerable showing for a team built on pitching and defense playing its biggest game of the season. That the offense didn’t manage a single run until long after it stopped mattering feels like a misdemeanor in a bundle of felonies.
There was, basically, nothing redeeming or acceptable about this game other than a night off for the back-end relievers and no injuries. Well, the weather was nice.
Time and time again, this Royals team has shown momentum to be a desert mirage in ways both good and bad. They have followed an embarrassing sweep in Minnesota with a five-game win streak. They have surged into first place, only to quickly fall back. They have followed Sal Perez’s inspiring ninth-inning home run on the road with a 12-run loss at home.
In that way, the Royals are as equipped as they could be to handle such a tail-kicking in such a critical spot.
The day after being embarrassed, the Royals have Shields pitching with a rested bullpen. These are the things the Royals will bring with them to the ballpark Saturday morning.
Optimism has its uses. The Royals can still win this series and the division. Even with the loss, the Royals hold a wild-card spot. This can still be the team that adds a flag to the Hall of Fame building in left field.
Of course, none of that will matter if the Royals don’t play more like the team that earned this opportunity and less like the 28 previous failures that have made this season so important to a fan base that deserves better.